Recipes for Change: The Trees of Minetta Playground

The Third Installment of this Week’s #RecipesForChange Blog Series:
“The Trees of Five Playgrounds, from Union Square to TriBeCa”

Come back each day this week for more from this week’s guest blogger, Georgia Silvera Seamans at Local Ecologist!

About this blog series: E.F. Schumacher, the British economist famous for coining the phrase “Small is Beautiful” told us to plant a tree. But which one should we plant? ioby’s guest blog series this week from Local Ecologist gives you a quick introduction to the arboreal lives of Manhattan’s playgrounds and, in it, a guide to trees tough enough for city life. 

About Recipes for Change: ioby equips leaders across the country with the tools that they need to make changes in their neighborhoods. Recipes for Change is a new series from ioby, aimed at providing the resources and expertise that you need for your environmental project to succeed.

Got ideas for more #RecipesforChange? Give @ioby a shout!

Today’s Featured Playground: Minetta Playground

The Minetta Playground is named for Minetta Brook, the same creek that used to flow aboveground through Washington Square Park.  Two nearby Parks Department properties are also named for the brook: Minetta Green and Minetta Triangle.  The .206 acre Minetta Playground is located on Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) between West Third Street and Minetta Lane.  The Parks Department was permitted to develop the parcel as a playground in 1934 and, in 1953, the Board of Estimate transferred ownership rights from the Department of Transportation to the Parks Department.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the playground’s renovation in July 2010, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn described the playground as “an eyesore for the families in one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighborhoods.”  The playground was reopened in January 2012.  All the play equipment is new but all the existing trees – nine Northern red oaks (Quercus rubra), one pin oak Q. palustris), and three London planetrees (Platanus × acerifolia) – were preserved.  In order to protect and preserve the mature canopy at Minetta Playground, the design and construction teams had to adhere to a five-step process (PDF): (1) define project goals and objectives; (2) inventory and assess all existing trees within the project scope; (3) design with the trees in mind; (4) formulate tree protection, staging and access plan; and (5) implement and enforce tree protection measures during construction.  Time will tell if the approach was successful.  Symptoms of construction damage are often delayed and can emerge within a few months to several years after construction is completed.

One interesting arboreal factoid about this playground is that the canopy is not dominated by London planetrees, which seem to be the default tree species in many older playgrounds.  A street tree-only survey of NYC (PDF) found that planetrees account for 15.3% of the total number of street trees and 29.1% of the street tree canopy cover across the five boroughs!  The pin oak is the fifth most numerous tree in the city, accounting for 7.5% of the total population and 10.9% of total canopy cover.  In Manhattan, London planetrees are the fourth most numerous tree, accounting for 8% of the total street tree population, while Northern red oaks are only 2.3% of the total population.

A 48-inch diameter Northern red oak is the third largest street tree in the Bronx, while in Queens the largest street tree measured in the city is a 76-inch diameter pin oak.

The Northern red oak is a preferred city tree because of its quick growth rate, symmetrical form, and pollution tolerance though it is sensitive to drought compared to other oak species. The pin oak is the “most popular street oak in America” likely because of its pollution and disease resistance and the ease with which it can be transplanted.  The species name for pin oak is palustris which means “marshes” in Latin.  Interesting, given the derivation of the playground’s name!

Different species of oak hold wildlife value in different regions.  In the East, the pin oak is one of three valuable wildlife species and, in the Northeast, the Northern red oak is one of four species of oak that have “particular importance to wildlife” (Martin et al., 1951).  The red oak is one of “the best shade trees,” (Martin et al., 1951) which can be attributed to its dense foliage and the horizontal growth of its branches.  Children and their caregivers will appreciate the effect of these physiological traits on hot summer afternoons.  Elevated temperatures negatively impact human and environmental health, so the role of shade trees goes beyond human comfort.  The trees and the understory vegetation also serve as a buffer between busy Sixth Avenue and the users of the playground – limiting exposure to vehicular pollution.

In The Granite Garden, Anne Whiston Spirn recommends at least 33 feet between the road and the sidewalk, the distance at which “the concentration of pollutants falls off sharply.”


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